The Agricultural Iron Triangle

Agriculture has been vital to the formation of society as we know it—the establishment of a rural farming class to supplement capitalist urban development is a main feature of colonial American history. Without food, other forms of human production are simply impossible. This urgent need, along with the reality that agriculture is a unique sector of production with many challenges to overcome, has meant that intervention from the state is necessary to sustain farming and subsequently the economy (Mann & Dickenson, 284-288). However, since westward expansion and colonization ended, the percentage of Americans who farm has decreased significantly. A 1988 New York Times article lamented that while farmers made up 64 percent of the nation’s workforce in the 1850s, they currently comprised only 2 percent. During the 1980s, the farm population steadily dropped around 2 percentage points yearly (“Farm Population Lowest”). Today, according to the Farm Bureau, the percentage of Americans who live on farms still hovers around 2 percent (“Fast Facts”). Citizens growing up in urban environments may never visit a farm or interact with the source of their food, and yet farming ostensibly remains a major political issue.

A piece of legislation known as “the farm bill” is a broad, overarching set of policies dealing with farming and nutrition programs that is passed by Congress and signed by the President approximately every five years. It reauthorizes, expands, or changes provisions of the original Agricultural Adjustment Act, passed in 1933 to assist farmers struggling during the Great Depression (Bosso 36). And perhaps most importantly, these policies directly impact the lives of millions of Americans, both those who live on farms and those who will never see one. In such a high-stakes policy environment, who wields power when it comes to the farm bill, and how will those power dynamics play out in the legislation expected to pass in 2018? While the most obvious answer is that members of Congress hold the power to ultimately decide what gets passed into law, determining who appears to or truly holds power requires a deeper and more comprehensive consideration of all parties involved. In my research, I identified three additional key coalitions: the farm lobby, the nutrition lobby, and agribusiness. I propose that they form a contemporary farm bill “iron triangle” for agriculture policy, with the stipulation that Congressional members do still have some power in relation to these groups. Examining who these coalitions are, how their power dynamics played out in past farm bills, and what stances they currently put forth will assist in understanding what policies are on the table for the upcoming 2018 bill.

The circumstances surrounding the farm bill are unlike those for many other more traditional issue sets.  Today, the political sphere has become increasingly polarized into Democrat or Republican points of view. But agriculture brings otherwise strange bedfellows together, bound by a common interest and an urgent need for the programs passed or reauthorized in each bill. Uniquely, the farm bill is an omnibus piece of legislation that is responsible both for commodity farming programs and nutrition programs—most notably, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Individually, these pieces of legislation may not be able to pass Congress (Johnson & Monke). Members with urban constituencies could oppose spending money on crop insurance or farming research, while members in rural areas could oppose increases in nutrition spending that mostly manifest in low income, population dense areas. These distinctions are not necessarily partisan, but spatial. Additionally, individual members of the farm lobby do not always pursue the same legislative interests—for example, cattle farmers and grain farmers may have two very different sets of policies they would like to prioritize. The combination of farm and nutrition programs means that all members of Congress have a stake in what gets passed for the sake of their constituents. In this way, constituencies have power over their representatives at an aggregate level regardless of the political party they identify with.

The farm lobby is large, multi-faceted, and comprised of individual farmers along with many powerful corporate interests. Though these corporations claim to stick up for farmers, they may not always have the interests of small business at heart. The farm lobby is most visibly represented by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), an organization that claims to be “the unified national voice of agriculture” (“Fast Facts”). The AFBF grew out of a program originally established within the Department of Agriculture in the early 1900s, and eventually became an independent entity that lobbied for farmers’ collective legislative desires. It represents a group of smaller bureaus that operate at the state level, but critics have claimed that it leverages those small farmers to focus on what is best for industry, citing the Bureau’s support for monoculture and increasing the use of technology (Bosso 53). More specialized interest groups also exist for many subgroups of farmers: corn, soy, dairy, and beef farmers, for example, each have lobbying organizations that more narrowly focus on their wants. The overarching label of “farmers” by no means guarantees that all farmers’ interests are equal—for example, the Dairy Pride Act introduced in the House and Senate in January 2017 would prohibit the FDA from labeling plant based dairy products as containing dairy, restricting the term to animal products only and edging plant-based farmers out of the consumer eye (O’Connor). Farm interests fragmented and began to each hold more sway with fewer members of Congress around the late 1950s. With power separated among more groups, representatives agreed to vote for what each group wanted, as long as each provision was included. As a result, the 1964 farm bill was an amalgamation of every small interest’s wish list rather than a cohesive legislative agenda to benefit the nation’s growth (Bosso 57). The farm lobby’s power also rests on its unique relationship with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) formed during times of surplus production. The USDA regularly encourages consumers to purchase overproduced commodities in order to support farmers and mitigate the effects of agricultural exceptionalism (Guthman 129). Thus, because the USDA views its role through the lens of helping farmers, the farm lobby has already gained a seat at the table, or a reliable channel through which to influence policy.

The nutrition lobby represents groups fighting for anti-hunger initiatives. Programs supported by these groups include those for low income Americans who receive food assistance or education, and international food aid (Bosso 65). Because nutrition programs are linked so closely to farming and food distribution, they are often also supported by corporate interests. It is also important to note that some retail focused corporations like Wal-Mart support the nutrition lobby because they receive profits from having SNAP benefits spent at their stores (Bosso 65). Nutrition has become such an essential part of the legislation initially intended to support farmers that it was projected to comprise over 80 percent of the spending in the 2014 bill (Johnson & Monke 4). And while nutrition advocates are arguing for a traditionally less politically salient population, that population has a broad base of support. 77 percent of the general public believes that spending on SNAP should be maintained or increased (Long, et al.). Agricultural corporate interests involved in the nutrition lobby can portray themselves in a positive light to that sector of the population by supporting food programs. The power of the nutrition lobby was tested during the 1996 welfare reform bills, when food stamp benefits were cut significantly—because the members of the group in question, low income Americans, were not perceived to be as politically important when separated from the farm bill. Members of the coalition insisted that if any changes to the food programs were made, future farm bills simply would not be passed—because they would not support them, and the urban members of Congress would have no reason to support them either (Bosso 62). The political price of passing commodity farm programs was that they not be separated from nutrition. Indeed, in both the 2002 and 2008 farm bills, the programs were kept linked and passed Congress together. Urban voting blocs are essential to passing programs important to rural areas, and so compromise gives both sides power.

The third side of the iron triangle is agribusiness—a term for the concentrated group of corporations that wield price setting, buying, and distribution power throughout the global food system. Not only do these corporations comprise the narrowest part of the food system hourglass, but also hold political power through the revolving door of appointees (Clapp). From a financial standpoint, during the 2012 election cycle (the cycle that would elect representatives to craft the 2014 farm legislation), agribusiness as a whole spent $90 million to get candidates elected, three- quarters of which went to Republicans. Agribusiness also collectively spent a further $138 million on lobbying those elected representatives to vote against perceived threats of regulation and disclosure. So far in 2017, those companies have spent over $96 million on those same pursuits, with additional preparation for the upcoming farm bill and marker legislation (“Agribusiness”). Considering the power of the nutrition lobby in relation to the farm lobby, it might be surprising that the projected spending estimates for the 2014 farm bill included an $8 billion cut to SNAP (Johnson & Monke). But in light of agribusiness involvement, scholars argue that the devaluation of health initiatives to focus on subsidies benefits industry (Freeman 1277).

Now we turn to examine more specific key instances of how these three interrelated power dynamics have played out in historical farm bills. The 2014 farm bill in particular gave rise to a long and sometimes contentious debate about many of the programs contained within it, and produced some significant changes (or lack thereof) that indicate where power lies. The titles of the bill included commodities, conservation, trade, nutrition (SNAP), credit, rural development, research, forestry, energy, horticulture, and crop insurance (Johnson 2). There are important examples in the lawmaking process where it becomes clear how important farm and nutrition programs are to the other’s survival. In 2013, the House of Representatives attempted to pass two bills instead of one, splitting the titles to cover farm and nutrition programs separately—at the detriment of nutrition, with a proposed $40 billion cut, over ten times the more moderately proposed cuts in the Senate (Orden & Zulauf 4). However, these bills suffered a resounding defeat, which was heralded as a marker of the declining power of agriculture, and the increasing power shift to urban areas (Nixon). Other important developments pointed to the increasing power of agribusiness at the expense of the farm lobby—lawmakers voted to change the commodity system to significantly decrease the amount of direct (commodity) payments given to farmers. Instead, they reverted back to a program based on crop insurance, a program that pays out to farmers regardless of whether crops are completely destroyed, and that has no maximum cap on benefits received (Dayen). Under this policy, large corporate agribusiness farms can collect on thousands of dollars in insurance annually, while smaller farmers receive very little. Additionally, crop insurance companies are often already owned by agribusiness, who then benefit from both sides of the equation (Clapp 102). As a result of this shift to crop insurance, the list of those receiving subsidies is no longer available to the public; eliminating agribusiness transparency about how much money they stand to gain (Freeman 1272).

How will all of these power dynamics and previous pieces of legislation come to bear in the 2018 bill? There are two ways to examine what is currently salient on the minds of legislators and lobbyists. The first is by examining pieces of “marker legislation,” shorter bills that are introduced in the years preceding a farm bill to start the discussion of potential policies that will eventually become law. Legislators, as early as the beginning of 2017, have begun releasing these bills in conjunction with key advocacy and lobbying organizations. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) says that the purpose of collaborating with lawmakers and other groups on these bills is to lay out an agenda, find congressional sponsors, and get their grassroots base motivated to fight for their goals (“Farm Bill 2018” 10). This marker legislation is even more important given that the new administration under President Trump has not made clear statements about priorities or its legislative agenda. So far, Senator John Thune of South Dakota has introduced six bills over the course of 2017 that would change the acreage of farmland in conservation and increase payments to farmers affected by natural disasters (“Thune Farm Bill”). Senator Thune sees these changes as necessary because commodity prices decreased dramatically since the 2014 farm bill. Measures to alleviate the consequences of the falling price of goods to almost below production cost will likely be a major focus of the 2018 bill (Johnson 2). Senators Roberts and Stabenow, the chairs of the Senate Agriculture Committee, have sponsored three and two marker bills respectively (“Legislation”). NSAC, along with allied lobbying groups, plans to introduce bills that will eliminate barriers to new farmers entering the market, improve conservation, alter the crop insurance program that was prevalent in the 2014 bill in ways that benefit small farmers, support locally based initiatives, increase access to genetically modified agricultural inputs, and fund sustainable livestock farming (“Farm Bill 2018” 11)

The second method of examining salience is through publications of and websites for the three sides of the farm bill iron triangle. Many initiatives supported by interest groups in this legislative cycle have to do with decreasing the equity gap between corporate and small or medium sized family farmers, as well as more localized programs to better meet regional and crop specific needs (Johnson 3). NSAC is a coalition of groups that advocate both on the side of the farm lobby and the nutrition lobby, and so has a fairly diverse agenda that is more progressive on the side of nutrition and calls for major reform to the crop insurance program. The Farm Bureau (AFBF) is aligned solely with the farm lobby, and attempts to speak on behalf of many different farming groups, but advocates for nutrition programs as a part of the power sharing deal that allows both sides to get their priorities passed. As such, their policy priorities as published include maintaining crop insurance for all and especially low-income farmers, expanding fruit and vegetable subsidies to producers of processed products, price supports and trade limits for sugar, and land conservation (“Farm Bill Resources”). The AFBF, NSAC, and members of the Senate all repeatedly note that commodity prices have fluctuated but have been trending down over the past few years, causing problems for farmers who would have otherwise benefited from commodity subsidies eliminated in the 2014 farm bill. Although agribusiness may push back, the farm lobby’s connection to the USDA and the nutrition lobby’s distaste for the crop insurance program will likely lead to some, though not full, restoration of commodity benefits.

So, who truly holds power in determining the contents of the most important piece of agriculture policy in the United States, and what will that look like in 2018? The answer to who holds power is nuanced, and leaves plenty of room for future scholarship to address it. I have identified the farm lobby, the nutrition lobby, and agribusiness as the three key players in crafting the farm bill, along with the representatives whom they influence and to whom they belong as individual constituents. Each of these groups represents an important consideration for policymakers: farmers of all different kinds, food consumers (particularly low-income consumers), and the businesses that connect them. The power of the farm lobby and the nutrition lobby are clearly intertwined, dependent on each other for political reasons as well as the fact that nutrition programs are inextricably linked to the food they stem from. Although the coalitions of people they represent may not always be politically salient, these lobbies have found ways to keep power in relation to agribusiness. Farmers have a history of involvement with the government, and agriculture is an essential national resource, so political leaders are inclined to listen and respond to their needs. Nutrition advocates are buoyed by public support and the concentration of representative political power in urban centers. It is hard to tell who benefits more from this arrangement—ostensibly, nutrition programs stand to lose and have lost more from being separated from their counterpart, despite being a part of the social safety net. However, the number of Americans living in urban centers and benefiting from nutrition programs like SNAP means that farming interests may be equally beholden to cooperation. Alone, it seems as though either of these groups would have trouble competing with agribusiness. The quantity of financial contributions and established hold on the market make agricultural corporations very salient and powerful entities. Certainly, the outcomes from past farm bills make it seem as though agribusiness has an advantage in what becomes policy. Further research is needed, especially after the 2018 farm bill is passed, to determine if farm and nutrition lobbies together can outweigh the interests of agribusiness. Preliminary findings in this paper using history and current legislative initiatives suggest that they may be able to gain small victories.

In looking ahead to 2018, the major political factors appear to be tied to changes in the 2014 farm bill and the climate since then. The shift from commodity subsidies to crop insurance benefitted agribusiness over small farmers, and the farm and nutrition lobbies are seeking to change that dynamic. That change compounded with a decline in commodity prices has left farmers with more financial trouble. For other Americans, however, the economic climate continues to improve, and so budget conscious representatives will likely propose nutrition program cuts yet again. Debates between conservative supporters of agribusiness and conservatives who rely on rural farmers as their base will define who wins the power struggle between small and corporate farm interests, perhaps playing out in crop insurance reform. Further debates will almost certainly emerge between different commodity producers and farm groups, as they have even outside of the farm bill. Regardless of who wins or loses, the 2018 farm bill will surely continue to define the power structure of agriculture as the members of the iron triangle work together to pass their policies through Congress.


Works Cited


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Clapp, Jennifer. “Transational Corporations.” Food, Polity Press, 2012, p. 90-124.

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